24 Juillet 2012
July 24, 2012
Why did the Fukushima nuclear disaster happen? Was there nothing that could have been done to prevent it from worsening, from spewing radioactive material over the Japanese landscape? And what lessons should we be learning from all this?
It has now been more than a year and four months since the meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant. On July 23, a commission appointed by the government to investigate the catastrophe released its final report, and there are plenty of important findings in its pages. However, though the commission interviewed 772 people for a total of 1,479 hours -- on top of the over 900 hours of interviews a Diet investigative committee conducted with 1,167 people -- we still don't have the full story, and it's impossible to say all the Japanese people's doubts have been addressed.
First of all, we still don't know exactly what happened in the disaster, primarily because high radiation levels around the ruined reactors make direct inspection problematic. It is, however, a shame that a re-evaluation of conditions could not be performed.
Furthermore, discrepancies remain between the investigative reports released so far. Points of disagreement include whether there was time to use data from the SPEEDI system for predicting the diffusion of radioactive material, and whether the March 11 earthquake damaged vital plant equipment before the tsunami hit and knocked out all power. These are both questions that have a direct bearing on future accident response measures as well as evaluating the risks presented by other nuclear reactors in the country, and cannot be left unanswered.
In the end, even after the reports issued by the Diet committee and the government-appointed commission, the investigative process remains only half-done. The government, the Diet and plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) must all continue their search for the causes of the disaster. As such, a permanent investigative committee must be established, one with complete independence from the government and whatever administration is in power at a given time.
On the other hand, the government-appointed commission's report does spell some things out very clearly. For instance, had TEPCO created a precise and well-prepared accident response plan in advance, the disaster at the plant and the damage it caused could have been constrained.
One reality that can't be pushed aside is that TEPCO's accident prevention policies were insufficient. Furthermore, the utility's tsunami defense and sever accident response measures were lacking in the extreme. The government commission concluded that TEPCO's response to the unfolding disaster was clumsy, and this, too, was because the utility was underprepared.
It's hard to lay blame on the workers actually at the plant when the meltdowns occurred. TEPCO, however, is deeply responsible for what unfolded there, having spent years prioritizing business concerns over ameliorating the risks of a major nuclear catastrophe. TEPCO's own report on the Fukushima disaster was one giant excuse from beginning to end, and the utility should redo its investigation while keeping the conclusions of the Diet and government committees firmly in mind.
The government, however, does not escape blame for the disaster. The government is tasked with regulating the nuclear industry, and yet the regulators were essentially captured by the regulated, doing the power companies' bidding. The Diet committee called the Fukushima meltdowns a "man-made disaster," and it's fair to say that the electric utilities and the government were "accomplices" in bringing it about.
Furthermore, TEPCO did not have a monopoly on ineptitude during the first days of the crisis. The government's disaster management was riddled with problems. Added to the well-documented stumbles within the prime minister's office was the nearly perfect uselessness of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) and the Nuclear Safety Commission, supposedly made up of experts who can inform and advise the prime minister during a nuclear crisis.
The government commission also looked into the events at Futaba Hospital, finding that the way the facility was evacuated raised the risks of rescuing the weakest of its patients too late. In the end, many of the hospital's patients died in one of the most heartbreaking incidents of the nuclear disaster's early days. The Futaba Hospital case was, however, one among many instances of confusion and mayhem during the evacuation of the area around the stricken plant. A plainly deficient evacuation plan paired with atrocious information distribution to the evacuation zone meant that not only were large numbers of people forced to relocate several times, but many were also unknowingly subject to higher risks of radiation exposure. This is food for thought, indeed.
What we can't quite get our heads around is that, even though the Diet and government-appointed investigative committees have pointed out so many important issues, the Cabinet of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda along with the entire Diet are being very slow to respond. We do not see any serious attempt on the part of either to take the problems presented seriously, and this is a serious problem in itself.
There are a great many measures that need to be taken right now, such as alterations to the emergency situation chain of command, the appointment of a public information officer, and a system to get vital facts to crisis-stricken areas quickly and efficiently. Guards against an accident with the spent fuel rod pools at the Fukushima No. 1 plant fall into the same immediately necessary category.
However, we can see no substantive progress on any of these essential measures. If this is simply because government figures assume no disaster on a scale comparable to March 11 and the Fukushima meltdowns will strike again anytime soon, then the government is being dangerously overoptimistic. On the same note, we also have serious doubts about the government allowing the restart of two reactors at the Oi nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture before the results of the investigations were released.
Furthermore, the government must build new policies based on the two investigative committees' conclusions so far, and it must do so quickly. To this end, the government must deliberate on the two reports together in the Diet, talk out the discrepancies between them, and decide on its policy responses. Once those policies are in motion, the government must also reveal to the Japanese public exactly how much progress is being made in their implementation. It would be best to create an organization tasked with this information sharing.
The government is now mulling three scenarios for Japan's energy policy all the way up to 2030, and is using an intensive survey method to gauge public opinions on the issue to help it make a final decision. We at the Mainichi Shimbun intend to run an editorial series on what challenges need to be overcome and measures taken to choose the best policy.
As a starting point to that discussion, we propose that our readers have a look at the investigative committee reports on the Fukushima disaster. After experiencing nuclear calamity, what energy policy is most desirable? The risks of nuclear power are at the very center of that question.
Though the investigative reports are both enormous, anyone can download and read through them. The Diet committee report is probably the easier of the two to read, as it states its conclusions very clearly. While the government-appointed committee's report may be tougher-going, it does have the upper hand as far as detailed analysis goes. We hope that all of you will consider reading the reports your "summer homework" and discuss what you find with those around you. Together, we should be able to find the key to Japan's future.
July 24, 2012(Mainichi Japan)